by Lee Pace, GoHeels.com
Carolina football in the 18 months of the Larry Fedora era has been defined by such catch phrases as "Smart, Fast, Physical" and by an offense that runs in fifth gear and wants to get to sixth and a frisky special-teams mindset with all manner of fakes and gadgets in its toolbox.
Behind the scenes, though, the program is etched with an unyielding mantra of player accountability and a vise that clamps players into the strongest motivation of all: Peer pressure.
"Everyone can see you on Saturday and see what you do on Saturday," Fedora says. "You can't hide on Saturday. But a lot of guys think they can hide the rest of the time. Not around here, they can't. We hold them accountable to their coaches, their teammates and to themselves every day. We measure it and we label it--this is what you are.
"You don't like it? Tough. Change it, then."
Dog it during one of the team's early morning Blue Dawn workouts in February? Fine, you'll find yourself wearing a red jersey the next day, just as Hester Prynne wore that scarlet A so many years ago.
"That red jersey stands out, everyone sees you wearing it," receiver Sean Tapley says. "It tells everyone you didn't give a championship-level effort the day before. It's up to you to bounce back."
Late for meetings? Last in line? Puffy and slow? Dense with the playbook? Loose with curfews and 8 a.m. class times? No problem, you'll walk into the locker room one day and see an unflattering term like resistant or reluctant or existent displayed at the top of your locker, beside your name and jersey number, prominent for teammates and guests to see.
"Accountability is the heartbeat of our team," senior QB Bryn Renner says. "You walk in the locker room and see your nameplate, and it speaks to who you are. If you're not doing the right things, it'll show up in your nameplate. If you don't like it, it's up to you to change it."
Give up a big play in a two-minute drill in practice or let the quarterback slip from your grasp? You'll regret it on defense if you're doing a slog of up-downs afterward, twelve pounds of your sweat-soaked helmet, pads and uniform weighing you down under the broiling August sun.
"You can't take one practice off," senior defensive end Kareem Martin says. "You can't take one period off. You've got to be focused on creating turnovers and knowing your assignments. If as a group we don't do those things one day, we'll be doing a bunch of up-downs after practice."
The scoreboard and the stats book tell the story on twelve Saturdays during the fall. Fedora's systems keep score the rest of the year. They apply not just to effort and production on the practice field and the off-season weight room, but also to class attendance and grades, to doing the next right thing. Each spring the coaches nominate eight players to be captains of teams for the "Summer Challenge," a compendium of off-the-field team-building activities from kick-ball to dodge ball to bowling, where teams earn points for winning but lose points for transgressions like ducking class or getting parking tickets.
"We hold a draft and it's a revealing moment when you get to the last couple guys picked on every team," Fedora says. "If you're left near the end, what's it saying? It's telling you your teammates don't think you're reliable, you're not responsible enough. There is nothing like peer pressure to send a message."
Years ago as an assistant coach, Fedora learned of a "Level of Commitment" system that assigned one of six adjectives to each player as a means of labeling what could sometimes be a subjective value. He put the system into practice when he became a head coach five years ago at Southern Miss and imported it to Carolina in 2012. After each of four calendar categories in the football year--winter conditioning, spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp--the coaches grade each player. The highest level is compelled, followed by committed, compliant, reluctant, existent and resistant.
"Everyone in that locker room knows where all hundred guys are," Fedora says. "They know what their commitment to the team's goals is. Every day, you create your resume, you're writing your resume."
Entering August camp one year ago, 50 players were at the highest compelled and committed levels. Fifteen were below compliant.
"This year 82 are compelled or committed," Fedora says. "Only three are compliant or below. That's a huge difference on your football team. This summer we challenged the leaders, the upper-level guys, to basically adopt one guy from the bottom and make sure he raises his level at least one step up. If he does that, our team gets better."
"Commitment levels are a big thing in our locker room," senior running back A.J. Blue says. "If you get a lower level, it's very humbling. You know you've got to work your butt off to move higher. This year we saw guys willing to push the extra mile."
There's actually a seventh category as well, but it doesn't get much attention. It's obsessed, and only Fedora can grant it. Has anyone reached that promised land?
"Not yet," he says. "But who knows ...."
Strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez orchestrates a 6 a.m. winter time workout known as "Blue Dawn," and after each session, the staff votes each player with a thumbs-up, flat or thumbs-down designation, depending on their effort and resolve that morning. Three thumbs-down votes out of a staff of 11 (head coach, nine assistants and Hernandez) and the player has to wear a red jersey for the next morning's workout.
"There's the old adage, 'You're only as strong as your weakest link,'" Hernandez says. "Guys don't want to be known as the weakest link. We hope that red shirt motivates them to get out of it and stay out of it. You don't want to be the guy in the red shirt."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning remembers from his playing days in the mid-1980s a post-practice drill the Green Bay Packers did under head coach Forrest Gregg, one handed down from legendary coach Vince Lombardi, that involved doing four sets of 15 up-downs--for each quarter and minute of a football game. Koenning later learned how fellow defensive coach Joe Lee Dunn had tweaked the idea to compile points during a practice session and even add push-ups, squats and other conditioning exercises to the regimen.
The version of "The Packer Drill" the Tar Heel defense plays is based on a goal of compiling 14 points during the team-periods of practice--the 14 points representing the number of games the team wants to play over the course of a regular season, ACC Championship and bowl game. The unit gets points for takeaways, sacks, tackles-for-loss, tipped balls, forced fumbles and the like and loses them for penalties, giving up big plays and other transgressions. If they don't hit the goal of 14, they do four sets of 14 up-downs after practice.
"It's a great conditioning tool, it keeps you in shape without running your legs anymore," Koenning says. "It's hard to get your body up and down, particularly the big guys. We're trying to get them to focus on avoiding negative plays and forcing turnovers."
The questions abound about what kind of team the Tar Heels will field in 2013: Who will replace Gio and Coop and Sly? How much faster can the offense go? Can the defense lay the hammer down in the fourth quarter? And where's the next Barth coming from, anyway? But one thing's for sure: The Tar Heels have been pushed and prodded and probed since the Maryland game last November into the best they can be, judgment coming each day from a jury of their peers. The lights are always on, the microscope always focused.
"I've heard the phrase a zillion times, 'However much is asked, so much is given,'" Koenning says. "If you don't ask much, you don't get much in return. Well, we're asking a lot."
"We're trying to transform a program," Fedora adds, "change a culture. When we got here, there was a sense of entitlement with some of these kids. 'I was a four-star or a five-star guy. I'm pretty special.' Well, that's changed. No one is treated special. If you want to get treated special, you perform on Saturday. You produce, you play."
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace (email@example.com) is now in his 24th year writing "Extra Points" and 10th reporting from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network. His unique look at Tar Heel football will appear weekly throughout the fall.